Black Panther, co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler, achieves something pretty special (especially when you consider that it’s another Marvel movie); Coogler has created a really personal feeling film; one with an identity and message that sees it standing separate from the usual MCU confines. It wasn’t a film I was immediately enamoured with and it is still plagued with some of the irritating issues that plague all Marvel films (issues that I do think hold it back from being something truly game-changing for the genre), but for the first time in a while, I’m actually looking forward to writing and talking about a new Marvel release. So let’s get into the meat of the review and see what it is that makes this film standout in a cluttered universe of films.
Following on from the events of Captain America: Civil War, we follow T’Challa/Black Panther – played by Chadwick Boseman – as he tries to deal with the recent death of his father and also now takes on the responsibility of being the new king of Wakanda. Many obstacles will be put in his way, and the greatest one will come in the form of Erik Killmonger – played by Michael B. Jordan – someone who wishes to take everything from T’Challa, and also someone who holds within them a dark secret. Surrounded by charismatic allies and dangerous foes, T’Challa will be tested in nearly every way possible.
Black Panther is the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and it achieves something very few, if any, Marvel films have been able to do (especially at this point with there being 17 other films): it stands on its own as a film; it doesn’t feel encumbered by what has come before, nor what is to come. Ryan Coogler has put together a very personal feeling film; one that tackles some important topics, while also being an engaging experience.
Ryan Coogler’s voice chimes throughout this film. He has taken a segment of the world and effortlessly slotted it into a universe that is big and broad. It’s a level of representation that we haven’t seen before and the handling of it is something remarkable to see. That aspect of the film will undoubtedly shape the lives of many young black children and that’s something really special that Marvel and the team behind this film have pulled off. And beyond that they’ve put together a film that (for the most part) stands by itself as an entertaining, engaging piece of cinema.
And the aspect of the film that pulled me in and had me at all times engaged where its characters. Chadwick Boseman has a presence on-screen that makes him someone you’re eager to follow and be a part of his characters journey. T’Challa isn’t a flawless king who can never be bested. Despite his superhuman abilities and status within Wakanda, he is still someone with flaws. But it is those flaws that make him a compelling lead character. He doesn’t have all the answers and he can’t walk through every foe put before him with ease, but he will persist, and he will have you rooting for him.
But what I think builds T’Challa into a better character – a character you like, is that he surrounds himself with a group of people who have their own voices – who make their presence within a scene known, and don’t just feel like background comic-relief. Characters like: Okoye – played by Danai Gurira – or Shuri – played by Letitia Wright – standout as memorable individuals who I enjoyed watching on-screen, and who also compliment the ensemble cast of characters around them. They all build upon one another and help to better one another’s performances and role within the story.
Black Panther even does something that very few Marvel films have been able to successfully pull off: it offers a compelling, memorable villain, whose motivations are layered. Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) wasn’t a bad guy for the sake of being a bad guy. He didn’t want to blow up the world or hurt people because of an uninspired vendetta – there wasn’t a super weapon that he would activate, and a blue beam would shoot up into the sky. Killmonger’s motivations were layered and complex, and at times I found myself siding with him and his message.
That made him a very interesting person to watch. It’s not often that you get a Marvel villain who challenges you morally – makes you think about what’s the correct handling of a situation and who is in the wrong. He was a character I wanted more of, because I found him to be fascinating to watch. It also helps that Michael B. Jordan is an actor with a seemingly unlimited amount of on-screen charisma. Whether he’s a good guy or the antagonist, I forever enjoy watching him.
And as a quick side note, Andy Serkis needs to have more roles where he himself gets to act, rather than be hid behind visual effects (even though he is still brilliant at that). Ulysses Klaue (Serkis’ character) was unpredictable, which made him exciting to watch. It was also clear to see that Serkis was having fun with the character and really brought an unnerving but fun atmosphere to the scenes he was in. But back to the main antagonist of the film.
When T’Challa finally came up against Killmonger – when their ideas and ways of thinking collided, you got a film with some really meaningful conflict. The two of them going face-to-face; entering into a conflict of ideas and words over what they think is the right way to move forward, created conversations and moral debates that I found to be really interesting – far more interesting that what a Marvel film usually tackles. And it was in these moments that I found the plot of the film evolved from a very basic story into something with actual substance. For all of the first act and some of the second, Black Panther was a film that didn’t capture my interest, plot-wise. It was only after certain revelations in the story and the war of ideas between T’Challa and Killmonger took centre stage that I found a plot that was engaging, and a film that had my full attention.
However, the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger gets a surprisingly short amount of screen time. As things were heating up between them and I was fully engaged by what was happening, the film pushed it to the side and fell back on being a silly superhero film. Where fight scenes trumped the complexities of the characters or their stories. This is still very much a Marvel film and because of that it still comes burdened with issues that plague the superhero genre. In fact, it was when Black Panther would go from focusing on interesting characters with rich histories or dolling out a lively landscape to feast the eyes upon, to then just being a superhero movie, that it would lose me.
Much, if not all of the action in this film was not entertaining to watch. It was badly shot, difficult to follow, and for me personally was an unwanted detraction from the actual engaging content of the film. It was when it stopped being a film and started being a dumb superhero punch-fest that I found my attention drifting. I wanted to learn more about Wakanda and the people in it. I wanted to explore the great offering of characters as much as possible. And so when it would revert to big dumb CGI battles, I simply lost any want to care. The final battle in particular isn’t entertaining. Especially because it took the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger and boiled it down to an ugly, difficult to follow CGI fight, instead of being something with more substance than who can best who in a fist fight.
You had a film that was doing something really different and really enthralling, but it was hindered by the fact that it still – at its core – had to be a superhero film. A genre that isn’t usually known for being able to allow depth and meaning to win out over action scenes laden with explosions and fist fights and whatever else makes up action scenes in a Marvel film. It was an odd outcome for me, as I personally really enjoyed Black Panther and how it approached its characters and story… except when it had to be a superhero movie.
Still, despite my dislike for the superhero aspect of the film, I still thoroughly enjoyed Black Panther. It was able to garner emotional responses from me that Marvel films haven’t been able to do in a while (if ever) and it got me to think about things that were relevant and meaningful. Is it the best superhero film ever? No. Is it the best Marvel film ever? No (though it is close to being it). But is it the best thing Marvel have released in a while? Absolutely. I think the cultural impact of this film is something to praise and love, but I also think it shouldn’t be allowed to cloud the fact that if you were to peel that aspect away it is still a film that is hindered by its genre.
Despite that, I still happily recommend Black Panther. It is a film with much to say and it says it well, and it will also be a film that succeeds in entertaining a general audience (as most Marvel films do). It is disappointing that the film was held back by its genre constraints, but I don’t think it ever stops it from being a worthwhile experience, or a memorable one.
What did you think of Black Panther and my review of it? Leave any opinions, feedback, etc. in the comments section down below. If you liked what you read, may I recommend following both my blog and my Twitter – @GavinsRamblings – that way you’ll always be up-to-date on when I post something new. But I’ll bring this review to a close now by thanking you for taking the time to read my writing, and I hope you have a fantastic day!